BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Inspired by nature, an international research
team has created synthetic pores that mimic the activity of
cellular ion channels, which play a vital role in human health by
severely restricting the types of materials allowed to enter
The pores the scientists built are permeable to potassium ions
and water, but not to other ions such as sodium and lithium
This kind of extreme selectivity, while prominent in nature, is
unprecedented for a synthetic structure, said University at Buffalo
chemistry professor Bing Gong, PhD, who led the study.
The project's success lays the foundation for an array of
exciting new technologies. In the future, scientists could use such
highly discerning pores to purify water, kill tumors, or otherwise
treat disease by regulating the substances inside of cells.
"The idea for this research originated from the biological
world, from our hope to mimic biological structures, and we were
thrilled by the results," Gong said. "We have created the first
quantitatively confirmed synthetic water channel. Few synthetic
pores are so highly selective."
The research will appear July 17 in Nature Communications.
The study's lead authors are Xibin Zhou of Beijing Normal
University; Guande Liu of Shanghai Jiao Tong University; Kazuhiro
Yamato, postdoctoral scientist at UB; and Yi Shen of Shanghai Jiao
Tong University and the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics,
Chinese Academy of Sciences. Other institutions that contributed to
the work include the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Argonne
National Laboratory. Frank Bright, a SUNY Distinguished Professor
of chemistry at UB, assisted with spectroscopic studies.
To create the synthetic pores, the researchers developed a
method to force donut-shaped molecules called rigid macrocycles to
pile on top of one another. The scientists then stitched these
stacks of molecules together using hydrogen bonding. The resulting
structure was a nanotube with a pore less than a nanometer in
"This nanotube can be viewed as a stack of many, many rings,"
said Xiao Cheng Zeng, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Ameritas
University Professor of Chemistry, and one of the study's senior
authors. "The rings come together through a process called
self-assembly, and it's very precise. It's the first synthetic
nanotube that has a very uniform diameter. It's actually a
sub-nanometer tube. It's about 8.8 angstroms." (One angstrom is
one-10th of a nanometer, which is one-billionth of a meter.)
The next step in the research is to tune the structure of the
pores to allow different materials to selectively pass through, and
to figure out what qualities govern the transport of materials
through the pores, Gong said.
The research was funded largely by the National Science
Foundation, and X-ray work was done at the Advanced Photon Source
at Argonne National Laboratory.